Let Us Now Praise Tour Guides

Tom Swick: Here's to the men and women willing to go off script

10.18.10 | 2:29 PM ET

Malta (iStockPhoto)

For years, tour guides were the people who gave me stern looks whenever I sidled too close to their groups. Such is the fate of the independent traveler saddled with a suspicion he’s missing something.

Then this past spring in Venice I met an off-duty tour guide and invited her to lunch. Arriving early, I watched unseen as Luisella led her charges through the crowds near the Rialto Bridge. Despite the crush, she walked with a smile and when she stopped, she blocked out everyone not connected to her group and spoke with a warm, focused enthusiasm. It was a very impressive performance.

A short while later, over sandwiches, I learned that it had not been a performance; Luisella loved her city, and reveled in the task—in her view the privilege—of explaining it to others. She kept it fresh by varying her tours, coming up with new themes. This meant sometimes studying at night, like a teacher preparing lessons. One of her new themes was the “book”—exploring Venice’s long publishing history, visiting bookstores, meeting with booksellers. She wanted to make sightseeing an interactive experience (so that the tour guide wasn’t the only local that tourists encountered). I began to regret that I hadn’t taken her tour.

I returned to Italy this summer and went on my share of tours, since some of my time was spent on a cruise ship. I found myself as fascinated by the guides as I was by the sights. More than just providers of information, they were representatives (often the sole) of the local population, and as such they set the tone for each brief visit.

In Naples there was a short, feisty woman who pointed to the loaded dice in the archeological museum and said with delight: “We have everything from the Romans.” Then she took us to a pizzeria.

In Agropoli our guide was a droll, middle-aged man in a Panama hat. Leading us dutifully toward the Temple of Poseidon, he passed a young colleague in a flowery skirt. “Very elegant,” he complimented her in Italian, before switching to English. “I like your flowers.” She thanked him, smiling, and then said to us: “Good morning. Enjoy your tour.” And even though it was mid-afternoon, her greeting pleased me enormously, for it fell outside the realm of facts, and professional duties, and emanated from a human understanding. She was more than a regurgitator; we were not sheep.

Our Sicilian guide had a gruffness that seemed appropriate for Palermo. Though at the entrance to the Palatine Chapel, he stopped to coo at the cat curled around the potted ficus. Inside, he spoke knowledgeably about the Arab-inspired arches and the Byzantine mosaics, which covered the walls and ceiling. Here my attention was taken more by the exquisite art than by the standard spiel; in fact, as the guide went on, my mind started to wander. But then he mentioned that a few years ago, during restoration, he had been invited to climb one of the scaffolds to see the mosaics up close.

“They were so beautiful,” he said, going off script, “I wanted to sleep up there.”